It’s been a long season for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
After opening 4-2, their only losses being to quality TCU and Northwestern teams, the Gophers’ season bottomed out as they lost four consecutive games. That run included a heartbreaking, last-second 29-26 defeat to Michigan and setbacks against Iowa and Ohio State. Off the field, head coach Jerry Kill retired midway through the season due to health issues.
Rallying around Kill and new coach Tracy Claeys, the Gophers rebounded. After an important, late-season victory over Illinois, Minnesota defeated Central Michigan, 21-14, on Monday in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit to spur optimism entering 2016.
There was a catch about the Gophers’ selection to the bowl, though.
Minnesota went 5-7 this season, rather than the required 6-6 for bowl eligibility. But since a record 40 bowl games were played this year and only 77 teams went 6-6 or better, a trio of five-win squads were needed to fill the remaining slots. The NCAA’s tiebreaker when it comes to 5-7 teams in bowls is “Academic Progress Rate,” and the three highest APRs belonged to Nebraska, San Jose State, and Minnesota.
Claeys, who took over for Kill starting with the Michigan game, was unapologetic about his team’s bowl bid.
“We played by the rules,” he declared adamantly. "If they don’t want 5-7 teams in [bowls], then change the rule. I’m not going to apologize for any of it.”
In fact, Minnesota wasn’t the only one of the 5-7 teams to taste bowl glory. Nebraska beat UCLA and San Jose State topped Georgia State in their games. All three teams finished 6-7.
But the very presence of schools carrying 5-7 ledgers in the postseason begs the question: Are there too many bowl games? If the answer is yes, how many should be cut?
Before that question is answered, consider the team on the other side of the field Monday night in the Motor City.
Central Michigan had a 7-5 record and pulled itself into a four-way tie with Toledo, Northern Illinois, and Western Michigan in the MAC West division. The Chippewas knocked off Northern Illinois (who played for the MAC Championship), and played very solid Michigan State and Oklahoma State teams close in Central’s best season since their last MAC title in 2009.
It was a season worth finishing strong. So when the ACC couldn’t fill its obligation to the Quick Lane Bowl, they deferred to the Chippewas, who brought a strong team to Ford Field and a large fan base that swelled attendance to 34,217.
Neither team likely would have gone bowling just five years ago. The Gophers would be ineligible, while the MAC wouldn’t have enough tie-ins to send the Chippewas.
Which leads us back to the million-dollar question: How many bowl games are too many?
The number of postseason tilts has increased from 10 (starting in 1967) to 20 (1997) to 32 (2006) and now to 40.
The other factor that has changed about bowl games is the addition of the College Football Playoff. While increasing the value of the New Year’s Six bowls, the playoff has seriously devalued the minor bowl games — some of which (such as the Sun and Liberty Bowls) date back more than 50 years.
But bowl games, no matter how small, still have a place in college football. Remember, bowl games were created for two reasons:
First, so teams that normally wouldn’t play each other could square off in an intersectional matchup. The Rose Bowls of the pre-World War II era created East-West match ups such as Oregon vs. Harvard, California vs. Georgia Tech, and Oregon State vs. Duke. Even today, bowl games pit teams from different areas of the country that would otherwise never face each other.
And second, they were created for fun. Until the 1960s, bowl game results played no role in determining the national champion. They were meant for teams to come to an oftentimes glamorous destination, play a decent team, and try to end their season on a high note.
That’s just what Minnesota did Monday, capping off a solid 2015 campaign. And after all the Gophers had been through, with more than their fair share of heartbreaking losses on and off the field, as Coach Claeys said while hoisting the QuickLane Bowl trophy: “We’ll take it.”
Photos: Carlos Osorio/AP